I happen to be very fond of the word “guy“. It’s so accommodating, so inclusive, so pleasantly informal. It is blithely unconcerned with any kind of division – race, class, fame, wealth. Although a single “guy” is always male (so far, anyway), plural “you guys” can just as well be all female. It’s also perfectly happy with other species…who hasn’t hollered at their pets “Knock it off, you guys!”, or muttered menacingly towards a persistent mosquito, “That guy is really starting to piss me off!”. In very recent years it has gained currency in other English-speaking places, but in my girlhood only Americans used this word. I did a lot of traveling in those days and if I ever heard the word “guy” in a crowd, I knew there was an American nearby. Everybody else said “bloke” or “fellow” or “folks” or just used a proper-grammar pronoun like “let’s”, “we”, “you (all)”. I always wondered how we Americans got “guy”, and it turns out to be an explosive story.
1605. Die-hard Catholics plot to blow up English parliament (36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in basement) and restore Catholic king. Plot discovered, plotters executed, heads on pikes outside House of Lords. Grateful King James I declares national holiday (Thanksgiving Act) popularly known as Guy Fawkes Day (after the plot ringleader). Bonfires, fireworks, burning Guy in effigy. Over the next 300 years, grotesque Guy effigies begin to lend their name first to any weird or grotesque person, then eventually to anybody gaudily or obnoxiously dressed. The Gunpowder Plot gradually recedes from cultural prominence. Thanksgiving Act repealed in 1859, but nobody is going to give up a holiday so thrillingly featuring bonfires and explosive entertainment, so England still enthusiastically celebrates Guy Fawkes Day.
Here in melting pot America, Guy and his fun English fireworks fest were unknown. The only thing that immigrated was his name, abandoning Guy-the-man and making its New World living solely following Guy-the-idea’s gaudy/obnoxiousness. The first American use of “guy” in print is in a slightly creepy phrase in the 1847 Swell’s Night Guide, on page 41: “I can’t tonight, for I am going to be seduced by a rich old Guy.” Guy is capitalized, which shows it’s still associated with a definite type of tasteless person, but between this particular meaning and today’s perfectly ordinary, generic Everyman/woman there is not a peep to be heard. The scholars have nothing to say. It’s a pretty big jump from tasteless/shabby/obnoxious person to happily garden variety you and me, but that’s how our “guy” story went. And such a useful guy that the rest of the world is taking him on…even, so very recently, back in England where it all started. Populist democracy prevailing!
Etymological illuminations brought to you by Jane